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Game On

The uniform is lingerie, but the play ain't delicate

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The negligible outfits are a week away, but the game-day intensity shows up at practice. This time, Sullivan calls her own number, zigzagging up the turf 15 yards and finishing on the ground floor of a pile-up of defenders.

"She can't have the ball up like that," Karen Golic tells her husband on the sidelines. "You got to tell her to tuck that ball and run with it." Bob Golic is standing a few steps closer to the action, and like his players, he's wearing only a T-shirt against a September evening that's doing its best impression of late October. The anchor of the Browns' defensive line in the 1980s, Golic is still a hulking land mass of a guy, his ever-present beard a sleeker version of the one he sported on the field back then.

Tonight he's taking in practice with his mouth hitched into a small awed smile, as if watching football — any football, even the humdrum motions of a group of neophytes — is still fun.

Together, Bob and Karen are the twin engines propelling the team off the ground. With little help from the league and only thin ideas about what's worked for other franchises, husband and wife have secured coaches, practice space, and hosted promotional events at their restaurant on West 6th Street in the Warehouse District. Golic is also something of the psychological figurehead of the squad; for a group made up mainly of rookies, it helps to have an NFL player on the sidelines handing out pointers.

The LFL itself is a gimmick that's grown wings. The league started out as a single game: the Lingerie Bowl, a 2004 pay-per-view Super Bowl halftime alternative featuring the scantily-clad, seven-on-seven gridiron recipe that would be the blueprint for today's league. Being the year of the infamous Justin Timberlake-Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, the one-event had the dubious distinction of being the least controversial of that year's mid-game options.

In 2009, the league started a 20-week season featuring 10 teams. Two years later, it has grown to 12 teams with flags stabbed in major markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa, and Seattle. The games are exclusively shown every Friday on MTV2. Along with Cleveland, three other expansion franchises are taking the turf this month.

Golic was at the original 2004 halftime lingerie bowl. But it was only after tuning in to a league game a few years later that he saw more was happening on the LFL field than the wardrobe.

"I was watching girls who were hitting with perfect form — just exploding from the hips, wrapping their arms and dragging them down to the ground," Golic says. "It made me think about some of the NFL games I had just watched, how many of the guys were coming up and hitting people real hard, trying to knock them down but not using any technique. I wouldn't have thought the LFL girls were tackling with better form than the guys were."

Golic heard whispers that the league was tossing around the idea of setting up shop in Cleveland or Columbus; he called up the bosses and declared the Forest City — a pigskin Mecca if ever there was one — should get the franchise. Since the news became official last December, he and Karen have been steering the show through its growing pains.

***

Surprisingly — or perhaps not, considering it's Cleveland — finding a rag-tag group of women who were game for full contact in minimal attire (and looked splendid doing it) wasn't much of a problem. At the team's tryouts in spring, more than 200 hopefuls showed up. The final cut included lifelong athletes boasting impressive stats in high school and college sports. But in terms of football knowledge, the range ran from players who had actually logged seasons on semi-professional tackle teams to those who could spell "touchdown." And the labor would be purely one of love: No players are being paid.

"I was really expecting it to be models and dancers, but I was pleasantly surprised," says 29-year-old Tiffany Soggs before a recent practice. With her hair tied in two large braids flowing from an orange bandana, the Middleburg Heights native doesn't have the air of gym-honed health that's common among most of her teammates; instead, she seems field-tested and tougher – a lady who can take and dish a hit.

And she has. For four seasons, Soggs has held a spot on the Cleveland Fusion, the full-contact, full-pads team that competes in the definitively unsexy

Women's Football Alliance. When the Crush held tryouts, she was hesitant to go, in part because of the league's street rep. Despite the lack of football experience in the talent pool, Soggs was impressed with the skills surrounding her and decided to sign on.

"It's still real football in terms of the actual athleticism it takes to play," she says. "I think the whole gimmick of the lingerie will wear off in the first five minutes, and then you're just going to see some real smash-mouth football."

Despite anchors like Soggs, the lack of football know-how is hampering most of the team.

"I'd never played football in my life," says Mikkayla Flores. "I used to watch it on TV and was like, 'Wait, what just happened?'"

At 18, Flores is the squad's youngest player and probably its smallest: A diminutive five-foot-four with a china-doll face, she sits on the bench before practice, tapping the ground with red and white Nike Air Force Ones stitched across with her name. Flores is a recent transplant from Arkansas, and despite having no history with the sport, her parents encouraged her to try out. Today a small scratch dead center on the bridge of her nose is the only sign left from when she smashed it up at a practice earlier this season.

"I didn't tackle right. A shoulder pad hit the face mask, and the face mask came in," she says matter-of-factly. The broken nose — the only major injury the Crush has seen this season — didn't slow down Flores; she's still nailing down the game's basics. "It was pretty easy to learn, but I'm still learning."

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